December 29, 2006

Future Production of Liquid Biofuels

Below is a chart that caught my eye. It was reproduced by Green Car Congress from a report issued by Nexant - an energy analysis and consulting firm headquartered in San Francisco with offices strategically placed throughout the world.

Current and Emerging Liquid Biofuels Technologies

An interpretation of this chart
Biomass is seen as a high volume feedstock that is low in costs. The conversion of biomass to fuels through gasification is "more challenging" than the known commercially implemented technology of whole grain sugar fermentation, but only slightly more challenging than enzyme hydrolysis (which is getting significantly more attention in North America). Syngas fermentation to directly produce ethanol is seen as a viable, developing technology.

As the study recommends, gasification conversion of biomass should be co-developed with other emerging technologies. Not only could it be useful for thermal conversion of other process wastes and residues, but, through syngas fermentation, it could be used to directly produce ethanol.

Below are excerpts from the Nexant press release about their recently published study. A link to the study prospectus is provided.

Nexant Forecasts Evolving Diversity in Biofuel Feedstocks and Technologies
New Multifaceted Technoeconomic Study Sees Strong Global Production Growth

A newly published study by Nexant, Inc.--Liquid Biofuels: Substituting for Petroleum--looks at current, emerging, and potential future technologies to produce biogasoline and biodiesel, considering all key elements of the value chain, including agricultural, logistical, and processing. Emphasizing technoeconomic modeling, it details development trends around the world and analyzes key policy drivers, including rural development, energy independence, and reduced carbon footprint, and considers a full range of technical, feedstock, and alternative biofuel product options.

Bioethanol from grains and sugar, though an excellent high-octane gasoline blendstock, has many practical problems and is also likely to be transitional over the long term, according to the study.

Nexant projects that the next phase of development is likely to be ethanol made by fermentation of sugars obtained through biomass hydrolysis. Nexant also concludes that, perhaps sooner than some may believe, integrated thermochemical platforms will take the lead in producing both gasoline and diesel range biofuels (biomass-to-liquids [BTL], similar to coal-to-liquids and gas-to-liquids), most likely in conjunction with electric power and chemicals. This alternative should be—and probably will be—pursued contemporaneously with developing biomass-based ethanol, according to Nexant.

While crop biotechnology may provide a more productive, varied, and stable feedstock platform for a biofuels industry, the potential for early conflict with food is probably underestimated, according to Nexant.

The study outlines a number of attractive “paths of least resistance” for developing the global biofuels industry based on leveraging current or co-developing technologies, such as coal gasification and gas-to-liquids catalysis. For the interim strategy of fermenting sugars from biomass, a number of preparation options are available, and thermal utilization of fermentation process residues needs to be carefully considered.

For the thermochemical platform of the future, more work must be done to develop in-field pyrolysis of biomass to help overcome logistics challenges, as well as biomass gasification and system optimization.

The study profiles a broad range of agricultural and biotechnology platforms and issues, and its geographic coverage includes the countries playing significant roles in biofuel feeds, production, and/or technology development over the next decade.

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